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Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
by Alison Johnson

Chemicals. They touch every part of our lives— from air fresheners to fabric softeners to carpets. Tens of thousands of chemicals have entered the marketplace since World War II, with more being added every day. Most of them have not been tested for toxicity by any government agency.

Among the adverse effects from these chemicals is the proliferation of a relatively unknown syndrome—multiple chemical sensitivity or MCS. Though the term is indicative of the problem, even principal clinicians and researchers in the field have never been able to agree upon a precise definition. In an article titled, "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: A 1999 Consensus," published in Archives of Environmental Health, a group of 34 researchers and clinicians outlined the following criteria for the clinical diagnosis of MCS:
  • The symptoms are reproducible with repeated exposure
  • The condition is chronic
  • Low levels of exposure result in manifestations of the syndrome
  • The symptoms improve or resolve when the incitants are removed
  • Responses occur to chemically unrelated substances
  • Symptoms involve multiple organ systems
One of the most distinctive features of MCS is that people who develop the condition begin to react to low-level chemical exposures that never bothered them previously. In most cases, as the illness progresses, patients report reactivity to more and more substances. MCS sufferers may have a wide range of symptoms with different patients experiencing different symptoms. A given patient, however, will usually have the same symptom in response to a given exposure, such as a headache after exposure to paint or arthritic pains after exposure to natural gas.

Regardless of the vagueness of its definition, it is clear that chemical sensitivity can destroy a productive life and do so quickly. Many with MCS are so sensitive to fragrances that they literally become prisoners in their own home; unable to go to church, work, classes, or social gatherings because of reactions to perfume, aftershave, shampoos, detergents, or fabric softeners. The struggles of MCS patients are well-articulated in my book Casualties of Progress: Personal Histories from the Chemically Sensitive with a story from Lizbeth, a computer systems engineer whose health deteriorated sharply when she developed MCS after moving into a newly renovated office building. She described her situation in unforgettable terms: "I remember when I met my new attorney in December 1998, I asked him what they pay someone who loses a limb on the job. He told me. Then I asked him what they do for someone with an amputated life."

Researchers have noted significant similarities between MCS and other chronic conditions, such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and Gulf War syndrome. Large numbers of people suffering from these three conditions report that they are now quite sensitive to a variety of chemicals. In fact, in research for my video and book on Gulf War syndrome, I did not encounter any sick veterans who do not now have MCS. Our soldiers in the Gulf War were exposed to a wide variety of toxic substances, including sarin nerve agent, pesticides, oil well fires, and depleted uranium. Large numbers were given pyridostigine bromide pills as a pre-treatment for possible exposure to soman, another nerve agent. Since pyridostigmine bromide is itself a pesticide, these soldiers were swallowing pesticide three times a day. In my video Gulf War Syndrome: Aftermath of a Toxic Battlefield, Lt. Gen. Ronald R. Blanck, commander of Walter Reed Army Medical Center during the mid-90s, states with regard to the illnesses suffered by many Gulf War veterans, "At least one of the explanations was multiple chemical sensitivity, something where a variety of toxic elements even at low levels by themselves may in susceptible individuals be causing these illnesses."

One veteran with Gulf War syndrome named Terry, an ex-marine from Florida, describes in my book how a perfume exposure landed him in the hospital: "I started to read a magazine, and it had a perfume strip in it. I got nauseated immediately and got a headache; I felt so sick I had to go to bed. The next morning, I was still nauseated and was wheezing, so I had to go to the hospital. They kept me there a couple of days."

One of the most poignant descriptions of the frustrations of living with MCS comes from a college professor named John. "I once read a study that said the average American spends 98 percent of the day inside. I've reversed that proportion and spend 98 percent of my time outdoors, sleeping on my patio and cooking there on a hot plate. I use my house as an oversized closet, storage area, and bathroom. I've been basically living outdoors for 20 years now. I have been told that early retirement is the American dream. Early retirement because of disability and a chronic, progressive illness is nothing but a bad dream, involving the loss of family, home, career, friends, mobility, income, and one's health… everything one holds precious," said John.

Several prevalent studies have shown that two to six percent of people contacted in random telephone surveys report that they have been diagnosed with MCS by a physician or other health professional. That indicates that over five million Americans are now battling this condition. Unfortunately, research funds have been almost nonexistent for this condition because the chemical industries do not want anyone to believe that chemical exposures could be causing serious health problems. As the numbers affected continue to swell, however, the medical establishment will have to recognize the seriousness of this debilitating condition.

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